September 30, 2008

Miles to go before they sleep

Three years ago the Indian board put down its objectives in a vision document. How many of those promises has it fulfilled?

Frankly the question being asked is, as the richest body in world cricket, has it fulfilled its obligations towards the players and paying public? For that we all need to introspect and touch our hearts before saying "yes, we have".
-- The Cricket Board in the 21st Century, A Vision Paper, BCCI, December 2005



Cattle class: the BCCI may be the richest board in the world, but you wouldn't know it from the spectator experience at a typical Indian cricket ground © AFP

Three years have passed since the paper quoted from above was distributed among those attending the first working committee meeting of the newly appointed Indian cricket board. During that time India won their first Test series in the West Indies in 35 years, claimed their first Test victory in South Africa, crashed out of the one-day World Cup in the first round, lifted the Twenty20 World Cup, and rattled Australia in Australia. The board itself signed TV deals worth millions of rupees; gagged its selectors, then kicked them out; experimented disastrously with a coach, was turned down by another, and appointed a third in secret; watched a captain quit in dismay; launched the IPL; dominated the ICC boardroom; and to round it off, hosted a game of musical chairs featuring the same old faces in last week's election farce.

"I look back with a lot of satisfaction and contentment," Sharad Pawar, the BCCI president during the period, said. Another senior official, who was involved in preparing the vision paper, admitted: "Let me put it this way. We have achieved 90% of what we set out to achieve in that document, but there is still some way to go." Quite some way, actually, if you run through those four pages carefully.

"The buzzword should be transparency," says the document. "There can't be a better start to the new-look board than resolve that everything we do from here on will be transparent and in the game's and public interest, be it election or allotting television rights or the team selection."

Except for a few influential BCCI officials and television executives, nobody knows what transpired during the hectic negotiations that led to Nimbus bagging the home television rights in 2006, and Sony walking away with the rights to telecast the IPL. The selectors were gagged early last year, which put paid to what little "transparency" there was in team selection. And the less said about the recent elections the better: a day after the new office-bearers announced the country's first paid selection panel, one of the five new selectors had yet to be officially informed about his appointment.

The rest of the vision document is an exasperating mix of ticks and crosses. Yes, the BCCI flaunts an income of Rs 1000 crore this year, but no, it didn't fulfill its promise to deliver a world-class viewing experience for the paying public. The board hiked the wages for domestic cricketers, but it didn't do enough to make sure its best international cricketers were available to play domestic cricket. It promised professionalism, but its cricketers are still forced to fend reporters away in hotel lobbies because there isn't a qualified media manager to help.

Apparently the BCCI now plans to begin work on a second vision paper. But before that, "we all need to introspect and touch our hearts" and ask: what happened to the first one? Cricinfo attempts to join the dots between the promises and the results.

Professionalism

Vision
The BCCI said it would appoint a chief executive, who would be assisted by various professionals, including separate managers for international affairs and domestic cricket, and separate directors for the print and electronic media.

 
 
While the idea of keeping a month free of international cricket has been repeatedly stressed by several former players and experts, it has not happened in practice. The board has a fixtures committee that decides on series dates and schedules, but all that it has done since 2005 is cram the calendar with back-to-back games
 

Verdict
After three years the board has clarified that its secretary is its CEO. However, the CEO's post remains "honorary", thus ruling out accountability at any level - including the sort of rigorous annual appraisal that is mandatory in any professional organisation. Currently the board's domestic affairs are run by a chief administrative officer, who is a paid employee and is assisted by a set of junior employees. Two other vital positions, in finance and marketing, are still occupied by elected board members. Imagine a multi-million dollar business without a marketing head or a chief financial officer.

Also missing are a professional administrative manager to accompany the team (this position is usually handed out in rotation to state association officials who retain valuable voting rights), and of course, a full-time media manager who travels with the team. The result: chaos in the team hotel, wildly exaggerated news reports based on inaccurate information, news leaks by vested interests, captains having to organise everything from jackets for the team to meetings, and ultimately, a very harassed bunch of cricketers.

Domestic cricket

Vision
The BCCI promised to "make domestic cricket attractive" by making sure at least four weeks a year, possibly in the month of October, were kept free of international cricket for the team. It was supposed to make it "mandatory for international cricketers to play in the Irani Cup, Challenger Series and Duleep Trophy before the commencement of the international programme". A significant hike in prize money and match fees was also promised to domestic cricketers.

Verdict
The only domestic tournament that has consistently seen significant attendance by international cricketers over the last three years is the Challenger Series, simply because it serves as a national selection platform.

While the idea of having a month free of international cricket has been repeatedly stressed by several former players and experts, it has not happened in practice. The board has a fixtures committee that decides on series dates and schedules, but all it has done since 2005 is cram the calendar with back-to-back games, leaving little time for the cricketers to rest and recuperate. MS Dhoni, the one-day captain, virtually lived out of a suitcase for three months at a stretch last year. The only breaks the India cricketers got were not by design: they came thanks to an abandoned tournament in Sri Lanka in 2006, an early exit from the one-day World Cup in 2007, and now the cancelled Champions Trophy. Otherwise it has been a frightening overdose of tacky one-day assignments, like the DLF tri-series in Kuala Lumpur in 2006, and the Kitply Cup in Bangladesh this year.



Ratnakar Shetty (right), the board's chief administrative officer looks after the organisation's day-to-day working with the assistance of a set of junior employees © AFP

What has been welcomed across the pitch is a substantial revision in the rewards for domestic cricketers. The BCCI's outlay on prize-money payments is now Rs 12.6 crore per season. The Ranji Trophy winners get Rs 50 lakh, a seven-fold hike from the previous Rs 7 lakh. Domestic cricketers now get Rs 37,000 per match day.

However, it remains to be seen how competitive Indian domestic cricket is. If it was to any significant degree, the top-performing batsmen and bowlers in first-class cricket would be playing in the Indian team - or at the least be among the frontrunners for a place in it. Yet Vinay Kumar, the Karnataka allrounder who was the leading first-class wicket-taker last season, was not deemed good enough to play in the Irani Trophy, the season opener, last month.

Also, while the best cricketers of the domestic season receive awards, umpires and coaches are yet to be recognised similarly, as promised.

Infrastructure

Vision
The board's stated aim was to create infrastructure of international standards across the country, for the players and the paying public. "The president [Pawar] is very clear that there cannot be any compromise on facilities to players and paid spectators as they are the gods for cricket administrators," says the vision document.

Verdict
Indian cricket's chief stakeholders are the paying public, who with their remote control buttons and ticket purchases made the BCCI the billion-dollar board it is. Yet, cricket-watching remains a nightmare in the common stands of most stadiums (the IPL ensured that the wealthy at least got to sit on plastic chairs), where the basic facilities are, well, less than basic.

It's not very different in the drawing rooms, where the first and last balls of overs are buried under an avalanche of TV advertisements. The standard of cricket commentary during home series and domestic games is generally abysmal. The commentators during the IPL sounded more like salesmen than cricket experts, and the "layman" anchors in the studio didn't help matters any.

The only consolation, if you can call it that, for spectators is that facilities for domestic cricketers are not much better. Only a handful of cricket centres in India have world-class facilities such as indoor nets and gymnasiums. The Punjab Cricket Association stadium in Mohali is one. Two others, Bangalore and Jaipur, owe their infrastructure to the fact that they host the National Cricket Academy and the Rajasthan Cricket Academy.

 
 
The Ranji Trophy semi-final between Uttar Pradesh and Saurashtra last year was played at Vadodara's Moti Bagh Stadium, where a derelict building served as dressing room, and a tent as the press box
 

The IPCL Stadium in Vadodara, where the Irani Trophy was held, can be termed basic. According to a cricketer who played the match, the venue is "just passable". Last year's Irani Trophy was played at Rajkot, the home ground of the then BCCI secretary, which has managed to host important domestic matches or tour games every year, and where players had to manage with plastic chairs in the dressing room.

The Ranji Trophy semi-final between Uttar Pradesh and Saurashtra last year was played at Vadodara's Moti Bagh Stadium, where a derelict building served as dressing room, and a tent outside the extra cover/fine leg boundary as the press box. Even Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium, which has gone into renovation now, has neither an indoor facility nor a gym. In fact, most state associations don't own stadiums and rent them from the local government instead. UP is a case in point.

Asked in a recent interview whether the state associations had been able to deploy their funds effectively, Pawar admitted, "There are some problems in getting land for building stadiums and other necessary infrastructure."

Pitches

Vision
The board had promised to "make a conscious effort to help the state associations to maintain proper grounds and pitches of international standards".

Verdict
There has been a positive shift when it comes to pitches in domestic cricket. Significantly larger numbers of matches produce results now, pace bowlers get much more assistance, and the days of boring one-innings draws seem to be past. The BCCI has held a number of seminars for curators, which were attended by senior officials and experts.

Daljit Singh, the head of the board's pitches committee, says many smaller venues, in states such as Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Tripura, now have sporting pitches. Daljit has put together a comprehensive instruction manual, which is soon to be translated into various regional languages. There is also a plan to grade curators, as is done with umpires, so that the best in the country can be identified.



Mohali is that rare beast, the top-class Indian cricket ground © Getty Images

All is not well, though, as the Kanpur Test against South Africa this year showed. The pitch was deemed to be substandard and the ICC issued an official warning to the BCCI saying as much.

Funding for states

Vision
The board promised to try and help state associations get sponsors for their teams, as part of its marketing strategy. "Again, in tune with domestic cricket elsewhere in the world of sport, all domestic teams will have brand names that will fetch them sponsorship as well as help them create fan clubs to follow their fortunes," it said.

Verdict
Most of the major state teams do have sponsors, but the line about fan clubs is surely a joke. Then again, the IPL has moved the goalposts by providing Rs 203 crore this year to be distributed among the state associations - 70% of the fees paid by the franchises to the board. This payment is in addition to the states' share of the BCCI's television-rights revenue, which totalled Rs 371.89 crore in the financial year 2007-08. This renders the issue of sponsorship moot in many cases. As Pawar said, "When they were getting less money, they certainly needed sponsors . Now that they are getting grants in crores, they need not worry about sponsors."

The vision paper adds: "All avenues for marketing and merchandising which are exploited internationally in disciplines like soccer, golf, tennis, NBA, NFL, World Series Baseball etc. should be done in respect of Indian cricket. Some of the areas are: corporate hospitality, clothing and cricketing memorabilia, brand and image building including protection of copyrights and registration of logo in international market, exploitation of rights in emerging areas like the Internet, cellular including G-4, broadband etc." When Cricinfo read this section out to a state association official, he laughed out loud. "This can only be Lalit Modi [the IPL chairman]," he said. "This would probably apply to an IPL franchise, but not at any state association that I have heard of. I have no idea what this means."

Marketing and television rights

Vision
The board claimed it wanted to end speculation over the sale of television rights. It said in the paper that it "would like to come up with a transparent method which will not only benefit the Board financially, but will also help in restoring its image as an organization which has become the epicentre of international cricket".

 
 
There has been a positive shift when it comes to pitches in domestic cricket. Pace bowlers get much more assistance, and the days of boring one-innings draws seem to be past. The BCCI has held a number of seminars for curators, which were attended by senior officials and experts
 

Verdict
This is one area where the BCCI, predictably, has exceeded all expectations. Nimbus Communications bagged the TV rights for all international and domestic games in India for 2006-2010 with a bid of $612 million (approximately Rs 27 billion), which meant the BCCI raked in Rs 559.31 crore from media rights last year alone. In fact, the money has been flowing in faster than anyone can count: Rs 415 crore for team sponsorship, Rs 215 crore for kit sponsorship, and so on.

The board clinched a massive US$ 1 billion (Rs 45 billion) deal with Sony for ten years for the IPL, and one with ESPN-Star worth US$ 975 million (Rs 43 billion) for the rights to the Champions Twenty20 League.

The BCCI also launched its website last week, 36 months after it promised to. The internet rights to Indian cricket have gone for about US$ 50 million (Rs 2.2 billion).

The big question, again, is this: when will all this money translate into a better experience for Indian cricket fans, the so-called "gods of cricket administrators"?

The National Cricket Academy

Vision
The BCCI wants the NCA to be a year-round technical institute where players can train regularly and interact with experts. "It should be the epicentre for world class coaching facilities so that players from other countries also make use of them. Renowned Indian and overseas cricketers will be part of the faculty," the vision document says.

Verdict
This part of the vision would have been ridiculed as a bad dream until maybe a couple of years ago. But in the last year and a bit, especially after Dav Whatmore, the 1996 World Cup-winning coach of Sri Lanka, took over operational responsibilities, the NCA has developed into the hub of Indian cricket training. New pitches and floodlights have been installed, and the fitness-training facilities have been spruced up. It has also been made compulsory for the players to get fitness certificates from the academy. Experts from India - GR Viswanath, L Sivaramakrishnan - and abroad are invited as consultants, and this year the academy launched a pace wing of its own.

Not so long ago, during the height of the agrarian crisis in India, Pawar, who is also the central minister for agriculture, admitted in the national parliament that he was able to devote only two hours a week to cricket administration. Judging by the promises that were made to Indian cricket and the results achieved, Shashank Manohar, Pawar's successor, will have to spare a little more than that from his busy legal practice.

Read the board's vision document here (pdf)

With additional reporting by Sidharth Monga and Sriram Veera

Ajay Shankar is deputy editor of Cricinfo, Sriram Veera and Sidharth Monga are staff writers

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